Surface Warfare Magazine
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Anchors Aweigh
These Naval Academy Grads Get to Choose Their Own Assignments

The United States Navy brought back the draft on Jan. 30.

On this cold Thursday in Annapolis, Md., 243 Naval Academy students, who will become surface warfare officers (SWOs) when they graduate in May, packed tightly into an auditorium, surrounded by admirals, captains, family, and friends. They were there for ship selection night.

A camera crew from the Defense Department sat outside waiting to interview the Navy’s next ensigns. The festivities had all the pomp of the NFL draft but with two key differences: These players drafted their teams, and they actually have to graduate from college. SWOs are in the minority. They have 800 classmates—future Marines, SEALs, engineers, submariners, and pilots—who do not have the option of picking their first jobs.

The students plucked ship names from a draft board, posed mid-stage to display their choice, shook hands with the senior officers playing league commissioner at the podium, then donned caps bearing their new team name.

All eyes were on Brynn Umbach, a bubbly Texas blonde two weeks shy of her 22nd birthday, 5-foot-five, weight undetermined, blue eyes, sandy hair pulled tight in a bun. Umbach emerged at the top of the heap, according to the Naval Academy’s Overall Order of Merit rankings, a measure of academic, military, and physical performance.

Her classmates stuffed themselves shoulder-to-shoulder in the type of the high school theater seats soft enough for comfort but itchy enough to stop you from falling asleep during Bye Bye Birdie. Each one bore a piece of tape numbered to correspond with class rank. Umbach had an entire row to herself, giving her the advantage of breathing room and the disadvantage of being easily spotted by bothersome reporters.

I wasn’t asking her anything she hadn’t heard before. Hyperventilating classmates approached her for weeks to gauge her choice. Many ships have room for only one new officer, so every pick is an opportunity gone for the less accomplished.

“It took a long time to decide,” she said. “People kept asking, but I kept changing my mind.”

She ultimately settled on the USS Sampson, a destroyer whose namesake, Rear Adm. William Sampson, was the valedictorian of the Academy’s Class of 1861. The Sampson is set to deploy shortly after Umbach graduates. More importantly, she will be stationed in San Diego, increasing the likelihood of being stationed with the man she will marry come June 14.

“He’s [Naval Academy] Class of 2013. He’s got dive school in Florida, but then hopefully he’ll come out to San Diego,” she said. “I feel fortunate because you normally don’t get this much say in the military.”

Not that everyone had Umbach’s options. Alex Doolittle sat at the other side of the auditorium, his 6’2, 300 pound frame testing the limits of the auditorium seating and obscuring the “243” on the back of his seat. He sat near the signing table where he would watch every one of his classmates hand in their selections before gracing the stage himself.

“I’m keeping my mind open,” he said.

“Do you have any back up plans?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. Two hundred forty two of them,” he said.

Everyone loves Alex. Like Umbach, he’s a Texan. He planned on enlisting after high school, but a visit to the local recruiter’s office prompted a call from the Academy’s football recruiter’s office. They needed a noseguard. Asking someone how it feels to be at the bottom of the class is uncomfortable. Doing so when he can snap your neck with a mean stare is another thing entirely. Lucky for me, Doolittle’s a gentle giant.

“It’s been a ride,” he said. “I’ve been dragged through kicking and screaming. I’ve been down here [at the bottom of the class] for three years, so I’ve developed patience and a bright outlook on life.”

I figured Doolittle and his cohorts had a wealth of McCain-esque shenanigans that landed them at the bottom of the class. I asked him to tell about his “good times” with a wink and a nudge.

“It’s an all day battle, but then the weekend comes,” he said as I readied my pen to transcribe the hedonism. “Like this one time, we went to Six Flags and I couldn’t get on any of the rides because they couldn’t close the buckles on me, so I ended up being the guy with all the cell phones taking photos. If everyone’s having a good time, I’m having a good time. It’s just like tonight. All my friends are up front, so if they get San Diego, I’ll live vicariously through them.”

Navy officers are just as excited about the Doolittles as they are the Umbachs.

“Career officers generally come from the top or the bottom of the class,” one instructor told me. ”The people who work the hardest—either because it comes easy and they’ve always been the best or because they busted their ass to be here and want to stay—those are the ones who stick with us. Those are the ones we want.”

The pageantry of holding a draft is a modern invention. Vice Admiral Tom Copeman, commander of naval surface forces for the Pacific Fleet and a third generation SWO, recounted his experience with ship selection when he finished Officer Candidate School in 1981.

“We picked a popsicle stick [with ship names] and dropped it in a bucket and were told to get back to work…This is a much, much better way of doing things,” he said. “Your first ship is going to be very, very special to you.”

Umbach was the only person in the top 10 to take a San Diego shift. Eight chose ships based in Pearl Harbor and Japan where they could confront China’s burgeoning navy or ships docked in Bahrain and Rota, Spain where they will face challenges from Russia, North Africa, and pretty much everywhere in the Middle East. The ninth pick in the draft chose a ship in Everett, Wash. eliciting boos from the crowd.

“Rota is an up and coming port,” top 10 pick Brian Fritz said. ”Right in the middle of the Mediterranean, important to our missile defense.”

“I’m excited to get to my mission already, start serving.”

The willingness to go overseas impressed senior officers.

“It just shows how gung-ho these guys are. They’re picking some of the most dangerous and important places in the world to do their tours,” one captain said.

He was among the receiving line of VIPs standing at the edge of the signing table to backslap and trade stories with the newest members of the SWO community. They affected the gregariousness of a drunk uncle, but had actual wisdom to impart, doling out tips on how best to navigate a cruiser or the bar scene in Norfolk.

Once the students escaped the scrum of senior officers, the real pandemonium ensued. They walked to the memorabilia table loaded with swag sent by the captains of their new ships: hats, belt buckles, history books, coins bearing ship insignia. They also had to confront their peers, some crying out of joy, others in frustration.

Midshipman John Muti, rank 172, jotted down every pick as the draft went on trying to figure out how to keep his cabal of friends in the same base. His schemes had fallen apart by the time I returned from the hallway. His notebook was filled with scrawled notes of options gone forever. He and three friends had settled on the USS American, a San Diego ship in need of three fresh SWOs. Another Mid removed spot #1 off the board, thwarting those plans.

“It’s not like we could talk him out of it,” he said.

But why not? The sports drafts are famous for backroom deals. Why couldn’t Muti bribe the man out of the assignment? Why couldn’t Doolittle intimidate his way to Hawaii or San Diego?

“I never thought about that. I’m bigger than everyone. I guess I’m just a nice guy,” Doolittle said with a shrug. This draft was surprisingly free of schemers and self-interest. This was, gasp, honor at work. In 21st Century America. The Mids weren’t thinking about beachfront property or weather. Each one I interviewed said that ship type and deployment schedules mattered more to them than living comfortably. This could explain why cold, wet Everett seemed to be disappearing off the board at the same rate as San Diego and Pearl Harbor. Mayport, FL remained nearly untouched by the time the 200s rolled around.

Muti’s last friend, Pat Kiernan, snagged the last San Diego ship off the board with the 207th round. Bahrain, Norfolk, and Hampton Roads, Va., were all that remained. A Mid evaluated his Norfolk options before Vice Admiral Michelle Howard stormed the stage and forced him to choose Bahrain. Norfolk slowly vanished off the board until Doolittle took his spot at the edge of the stage. The auditorium erupted as he swiped the USS Monterey off the board. He exited to chants from the crowd, met the receiving line, and beamed with pride.

“It’s a cruiser just like I originally planned. I didn’t think I’d get it,” he said.

The Mids and senior officers travelled upstairs to the after party. I was told it was closed to the press. The PR folks didn’t want me catching any of the vulgarity for which Navy boys are famous, I suppose. Now I had to go. I made my way up the steps, dropped the name of a senior officer I just met that day, and perked my ears to see if this whole code of honor thing was a front.

Instead I found Midshipmen generously tipping bartenders at the cash bar and discussing their new assignments, excitedly recounting facts about their future ships using military jargon that I couldn’t decipher. It’s a spectacle most college graduates or parents could never imagine: a sea of clean-shaven, well-dressed 21-year-olds drinking non-light beer and acting like…grown ups.

“You’re going to be pressed immediately to be a leader of men and women,” Admiral Copeman said in his opening remarks.

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